The Telegraph, 22 June 2017
Rupert Christiansen
Verdi: Otello, Royal Opera House, London, 21. Juni 2017
Jonas Kaufmann's debut let down by a lame and ugly staging
No, he didn’t cancel and yes, he was very good indeed. Despite all the anxieties attendant on this wondrous but somewhat unreliable German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann finally made his long-awaited debut in the taxing title-role of Verdi’s Otello.

His singing is technically almost unimpeachable: perfectly in tune, even between the registers, cleanly projected. None of the challenges here were fluffed or ducked, and the sensitivity of his musicality was always evident, with some particularly lovely tone and phrasing in the love duet and the “Dio mi potevi scagliar” monologue.

But as yet his interpretation is cautious; he ventures nowhere near the character’s emotional edge. The opening “Esultate” had no clarion authority, “Si, pel ciel” didn’t raise the rafters and he didn’t let rip on “Ora e per sempre addio”. Nor is he the world’s greatest actor: his stage presence is oddly diffident, to the point that one never sensed the mighty General or even the outsider Moor (his flesh, incidentally, was barely darkened).

Otello’s downfall is moving because it comes from a lofty height: Kaufmann radiates only a dashing young Captain who loses his cool. If the interpretation is to develop, he needs to radiate a more regal demeanour, commanding the stage through stillness and a stare, as his great predecessors Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo did.

The audience received him warmly, but no more warmly than his fellow principals. Maria Agresta made a maturely poised and elegant Desdemona – was I alone in craving more seraphic purity and more vivid enunciation? As Iago, Marco Vratogna (a late substitute for Ludovic Tézier) was brilliantly incisive and devilish – perhaps excessively so, as Otello emphatically deems him “onesto”.

Of the remainder of the performance there is little to say. Frédéric Antoun was a pleasant but slightly underpowered Cassio, and an expanded chorus made a proportionately big noise. Antonio Pappano’s conducting of this opera, a known quantity at Covent Garden, is sharply energised but falls short of the sublime.

The real disappointment was a lame, ugly and soporifically dark staging by Keith Warner that is no improvement on what it replaces. Costuming is generically Renaissance, but the black-walled chamber with movable latticed panels designed by Boris Kudlicka evokes a Stasi HQ circa 1960; at no point does Warner bring the drama any psychological life, and his direction of the denouement is particularly ludicrous. The net result is an Otello without visceral impact.

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